Authors: James Patterson,Richard Dilallo
Tags: #Mystery Thriller
“AREN’T YOU SUPPOSED to be retired?” I tell Creasy.
“Yeah,” he says, “but I still got my ear to the floor. People tell me stuff.”
As we’re talking, I step out into the grass, feel the cool blades on my bare feet. Fireflies light up around me in the dark. I can hear insects chirping in the distance. I could have died today—and that perspective makes it hard to be worried about whatever Creasy has to say.
He tells me that the higher-ups in the Texas Ranger Division are happy with my performance today. From the major who oversees my company to the chief of the whole division, everyone agrees I couldn’t have handled the situation any better.
“They’re happier than pigs in shit,” Creasy says.
“I thought you said you had bad news.”
“I do,” Creasy says. “While everybody’s tickled pink about you, they’re mad as hell at Kyle.”
My stomach sinks.
“He’s napping in the truck while you’re in there taking on two bad guys all by yourself.”
“There’s nothing he could have done,” I say. “No way he could have known.”
What I’m saying is true. But public perception is something else entirely.
Your everyday Ranger can typically fly under the public radar, but once you’re a lieutenant, you’re kind of a public figure.
“What’s the media coverage been like?” I ask.
The way to know if a news story is going to get airplay is if there’s video of it, plain and simple. If someone took a cell-phone video of a firefighter saving a cat from a tree, that story will get a hundred times more airplay than someone saving a school bus full of children if there were no amateur videographers around to witness it.
“That’s the other bit of bad news,” Creasy says. “Somebody leaked the security footage of what happened inside the bank.”
If my stomach sank before, now it plummets.
“It’s gone viral,” Creasy says. “Hell, there’re half a million hits on YouTube already.”
“Jesus,” I mutter. “No one needs to see that.”
Creasy says the news stations are warning viewers about the violent subject matter before they air the video on repeat.
“You’re gonna be a bona fide media hero,” Creasy says.
“The switchboard at headquarters can’t handle all the calls. I bet the
Good Morning America
tries to get you on there. No way the chief lets that happen, but it’s a shit show down at headquarters, that’s for sure.”
I feel sick. Even more sick than I did before.
I walk back over to the porch and plop down in my chair. On the surface, this shouldn’t seem like such bad news. As long as no one thinks I did anything wrong, I’m not in any danger of being reprimanded. It might be good publicity for the Rangers. But the bottom line is, I just don’t want the attention.
Last year, I was connected to a series of high-profile murders. The first victim was my ex-wife, Anne, who—until then anyway—was the love of my life. Once the case was solved, my name was all over the papers, and the headlines weren’t always good. I’d earned a reputation for being a hothead willing to bend—or even break—the rules.
Ever since, I’ve been trying to keep my head down, follow the rules, be the best Ranger I can be.
“I hope like hell no one’s shown that video to Willow,” I tell Creasy.
As if the universe could hear our conversation, an incoming call buzzes in my ear.
“I gotta go,” I tell Creasy.
When I pick up, Willow is crying on the other end.
“ARE YOU OKAY?” Willow says, barely able to talk through her sobs.
I admit that I’m shaken up and a bit numb, but I assure her I’m unharmed.
Willow says that when she finished her set in Sacramento, one of the crew said, “Hey, is this your Texas Ranger boyfriend?” and shoved an iPad in her face. Without knowing what she was getting into, she watched the video of me in the standoff.
“That guy shot the hat right off your head,” she says.
I apologize for not calling to tell her. I didn’t want her to be an emotional wreck before she had to perform.
“I have to join Dierks in fifteen minutes for a duet of ‘Long Trip Alone,’” she says. “I don’t know how I’m gonna do it. I’m shaking like a leaf.”
“You can do it,” I say. “You’re a professional.”
The first time I ever saw Willow was when she was onstage. It was in a roadhouse bar, not a big concert venue, but she had a magnetism that was undeniable. She’s a looker, no doubt about it, with blond hair and curves in all the right places. But what I loved about her the most was her voice. She sounds like Carrie Underwood—and can hit the same notes—but there’s also a raspy undertone to her voice that’s sexy as hell.
I think I fell in love with her the first time I saw her perform. Whether it was love at first sight or love at first sound, I can’t be sure.
Willow’s not a fragile person—she’s one of the toughest people I’ve ever met—but she just watched me not only come close to dying but also kill two people.
I can tell she’s starting to pull herself together. I think she just needed to hear my voice.
“How was the show?” I ask, trying to divert the conversation away from death.
She fills me in on the latest in her life. After tonight’s concert, there’s a break in the tour, and she’ll be flying back to Nashville to record the final songs for the album.
“Any chance you can come visit?” she says.
In theory, I could. I’ll be on leave for at least a few days, maybe a few weeks. Any time a Ranger is involved in a shooting, there’s a period of investigation. But I know what will happen if I fly to Nashville. Willow will be so busy we won’t get to spend any quality time together. She’ll have late-night recording sessions or be asked to visit one promotional event after another. With her debut album on
the horizon, she pretty much needs to do everything she’s asked these days.
I want to support her, but what I need right now is the comfort of home. I need to heal by helping Dad on the ranch, eating Mom’s home-cooked meals. I’d give just about anything to have Willow fly back to Texas and spend some time here, but getting on a plane and flying to Tennessee is the last thing I want to do right now.
I try to explain this the best I can to Willow, but it turns our conversation melancholy. We talk a little more about trivial matters, but I get the impression we’re both thinking about what’s
Her career is taking off, and the long-distance thing we’re doing can last only so long. If I’m not willing to take the plunge and move to Tennessee, what are we going to do?
And after today—when I almost died in the line of duty—I imagine Willow is wondering what she’s gotten herself into. Can her heart really handle being in love with a Texas Ranger?
Are our careers compatible?
As great as we are together, are
“I gotta go,” Willow says. “I’m due onstage.”
I tell her I love her and hang up. I stand alone in the darkness, listening to the chirp of the insects and looking up at the stars. They don’t shine quite as bright as they used to with all the light pollution seeping up from the horizon, that’s for sure. I pick up my empty beer bottle and head into the house.
Thinking of Willow performing seventeen hundred miles away, I open my laptop and go to YouTube to find a video of
her. I watch the video that made her an internet sensation—just her, sitting onstage on a barstool, with her leg in a cast and a guitar in her hands.
That’s my girlfriend,
I think proudly.
I catch myself smiling.
Before closing the computer, I feel a temptation. I search for my name, and sure enough a video pops up showing a grayish image of me in the bank. I press Play. There’s no sound, but I can see myself talking to the robber with a gun to my head. When the one with the machine gun climbs onto the counter, we’re all three in the frame. My heart is pounding as I watch. On the screen, I drop to my knee and a flash of light takes the hat off my head—
I slam the laptop closed.
I think of Willow, what it must be like for her, seeing this and facing the reality that she could lose me at any time.
A FEW DAYS later, Dad and I are riding horses along the perimeter of the property, looking for places in the fence that need repair. I’ve got my gun on my hip in case we run into any rattlesnakes. And I’ve got a new hat on my head. Willow had it shipped to me, a Silverbelly Stetson with a high crown, wide brim, and sterling silver buckle on the band.
The hat probably cost three hundred dollars.
It doesn’t feel quite right on my head. I’m trying to break it in, but I’m sure missing my old hat.
Dad’s riding Dusty, a roan he’s had for a decade, and I’m riding Mom’s horse, Browny, a beautiful young bay. We’re supposed to be checking the fence, but my brothers and I helped Dad with a big repair just a few months ago. Really
this is just an excuse for Dad and me to get out and enjoy ourselves for a few hours.
We don’t talk much. Dad knows that’s not what I need right now. Instead, I focus on the sound of the horses clopping along and enjoy the faint breeze blowing on our faces. It’s midmorning, and the day hasn’t grown oppressively hot yet.
I feel my phone buzz and dig it out of my jeans. By the time it’s in my hand, I’ve missed the call. It was from Kyle Hendricks.
“I better call back,” I say to Dad.
There’s a stream up ahead with a big oak tree providing shade, so we stop there and let the horses drink. I dismount and call my lieutenant back.
“You ready to get back to work, Ranger?” Kyle says as soon as he picks up.
“So soon?” I say.
“You want a longer paid vacation?” he says.
“Just surprised is all.”
“There ain’t much to investigate when the whole damn thing is on video,” Kyle says.
“All right,” I say. “I’ll be in tomorrow.”
The truth is, I am disappointed. It’s been good for me to spend the last few days with my family. I want to go back to work, but not in a rush.
“Don’t come to company headquarters,” Kyle says. “We need you for something else. You ever heard of Rio Lobo?”
“The ghost town?”
“No, that’s Lobo,” Kyle says. “Rio Lobo is a little town over in West Texas. Few hours from Fort Hancock.”
Kyle says a town councilwoman has died under suspicious circumstances.
“All evidence suggests natural causes, but the local detective thinks otherwise. They’ve asked us to send a Ranger.”
All of this sounds very strange to me. Not that they would ask the Rangers for help. That’s what we’re here for. Texas has six Ranger companies, each assigned to a geographic region. Company F, housed in the Waco office, is nowhere near this town way over on the other side of the state, close to New Mexico.
As if he can sense my confusion, Kyle says that the Ranger covering that area recently retired, and Company E, out of El Paso, can’t spare the manpower from an ongoing, enormous drug-trafficking investigation.
“They asked if we had anyone to spare, and I volunteered you. I figured you’d want to keep a low profile right now.”
I sense a subtext to Kyle’s words. It’s true I want to keep a low profile, but this assignment seems low stakes, the kind of job they’d typically assign to a new hire in need of field experience. He might prove himself, and even if he doesn’t, screwing up won’t be too much of a black mark on his reputation. There are other Rangers available to do this job. Which tells me something.
My lieutenant is sending me on this job as a punishment.
“Is there a problem?” Kyle says. “You got quiet there for a minute.”
“Are you really this petty?” I say, even though I know I shouldn’t.
I guess everyone is right—I am a hothead.
“What did you say?” Kyle snaps. “Call you a hero and
suddenly you’re too good for a small-town field assignment?”
I bite my tongue. It’s what I should have done in the first place.
Kyle says, “I’m giving you an order, Ranger.”
I’ve been trying to walk the straight and narrow within the Texas Ranger Division. I’ve been careful not to piss anyone off lately. I need to do this job and do it to the best of my ability. And if spending a few weeks in the middle of nowhere is what it takes to mend fences with my lieutenant, that’s what I’m going to do.
“I’m sorry,” I say, trying to make my voice sound as earnest as possible. “I was out of line. I’m happy to do it.”
“Good,” he says, his voice still trembling with anger. “You leave first thing in the morning.”
‘CLINTON’S INSIDER SECRETS AND PATTERSON’S STORYTELLING GENIUS MAKE THIS THE POLITICAL THRILLER OF THE DECADE’
|‘Difficult to put down’|
|‘Satisfying and surprising’|
|‘A quick, slick, gripping read’|
|‘A high-octane collaboration … addictive’|